THE BLOG
05/28/2013 04:09 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2013

How Social Media Is Helping to Bring Fans Back to IndyCar

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After winning one of the most popular victories in recent Indianapolis 500 memory, IndyCar driver Tony Kanaan took to Instagram and expressed his joy to his legion of fans worldwide with a picture of him pouring the traditional winner's milk over his head, accompanied by a single word: "Yesssssssss."

Sunday's 97th Running of the Indianapolis 500 lifted the IndyCar Series to level of awareness rarely seen in the last few years.  Social media allowed the drivers to share the highlights, and low lights of the fastest (by average speed) and most competitive (by number of lead changes) race in the 104-year history of the Speedway real-time.

During race weekend and after, Twitter lights up with thoughts and from the drivers. There was Pippa Mann, sharing her frustration at damaging her car.  Graham Rahal's response to her accusation that he caused her crash. A flood of thanks to sponsors, crews, and fans. Praise for the finally victorious Tony Kanaan, and of course, Tony himself thanking the fans. Indeed, most drivers in the IndyCar series have Twitter accounts (yes, even that guy that likes to dance on TV who has won the 500 three times in his spare time) and regularly use them to keep fans abreast of the lastest updates from their teams.  Most even wear Twitter handles on their driver uniforms.

Ask most people about auto racing in the United States, and you're likely to get a mention of NASCAR.  NASCAR, the wildly popular series where specialized race cars designed to look like showroom stock from manufacturers including Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota, holds dozens of major races a year across three national touring series, The Sprint Cup (which starts its season with their crown jewel, the Daytona 500), The Nationwide Series, and the Camping World Truck Series.  NASCAR holds lucrative television contracts with FOX and ESPN, and millions tune in weekly to their races.

But, believe it or not, at one point in time in the early to mid 1990s, Indy-style racing was arguably even more popular than NASCAR was. Yet you may be reading this, and beyond the Indy 500, itself, you may not have heard of it. So, what happened?

The Indianapolis 500, held annually since 1911 (except for wartime breaks for World War I and World War II), is the anchor of a challenging annual racing schedule that mixes different kinds of racetracks (ovals, road courses, and races in city streets), with a goal of a national championship to be awarded to a driver who can perform best over the entire year.

Throughout the late 1970s until the mid 1990s, that national championship was known as the "IndyCar World Series."  And it truly was an international affair, with drivers from nations all around the world competing for the national championship.   In the late 1980s and early 1990s, most races were broadcast on ABC and ESPN to strong ratings.

At the time the IndyCar Championship was run by a board of car owners in an organization called CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams), which through partnership with USAC (the United States Auto Club) and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was able to run the Indianapolis 500 as a part of the schedule. The 1995 race, featured Jacques Villeneuve (who would two years later win a Formula 1 World Championship), emerging victorious in a crazy finish.

But the 1995 race had been run under a cloud.  In 1994, Tony George, whose family had owned the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 1945 and who was now CEO and President of the track, decided it was time for a change. To foster a vision was to return to more of a "traditional" oval only racing series that would provide lower cost equipment, and nurture American talent primarily racing in the Midwestern United States, George announced the formation of a new national Indy-style racing series, dubbed the Indy Racing League, to start in 1996 -- and most importantly, it would have the Indy 500 on its schedule -- not CARTs.

The biggest blow came when it became known that at the 1996 Indianapolis 500, the Speedway would limit the number of entries from cars that didn't come from the IRL which meant that most of the drivers and cars who had raced in the Indianapolis 500 in recent years would be unable to compete there.  This period of time has become known to IndyCar fans as "The Split."

With two major Indy-style open racing series competing for fans, attention and sponsors, both series struggled to capture NASCAR-level attention.  At the time same, NASCAR started a run of commercial growth, starting most notably with the beginning of their TV deal with FOX in 2001.  NASCAR started to become a very compelling option for major sponsors looking for TV eyeballs and drivers became major and important brand ambassadors to an audience base who had immense brand loyalty.

Over the next 12 years, both series struggled to find their footing. The IRL gave up the exclusionary rule for the Indianapolis 500, started to include non-oval races in its schedule, and slowly won over major automobile manufacturers to participate. CART continued its decline.  Sponsors, manufacturers and teams wanted to be at Indy for the 500, and forced to placate the people who paid their bills, CART teams (which became ChampCar in 2004 after a first bankruptcy) started to make appearances at the Indy 500 again - and ultimately chose to run the entire IRL schedule.  By the end of 2007, ChampCar was headed for another bankruptcy, and the IRL purchased their assets in a bankruptcy auction, essentially merging the series for the 2008.   "The Split" was over, but many of the fans had gone.

With the merger of the two disparate series finally consummated, a big question remained.  Just what WAS IndyCar now? And could IndyCar win back the fans it had lost?

The answer started to come together slowly.  The IRL changed its name back to the IndyCar Series again.  And after a few foundational years, the competition at the Speedway and across the entire schedule continued to improve dramatically.

Terrific races at Indy in 2011 (where J.R. Hildebrand was leading on the last lap until the last turn of the race, only to hit the wall and give a miracle win to Dan Wheldon), 2012 (where Takuma Sato crashed on the last lap trying to take the lead from Dario Franchitti), started to coincide with the rise and popularity of social media tools, especially Twitter.  It was a word-of-mouth series that was now meeting word-of-mouth media.

Enter social media -- and specifically the Speedway's #Indy500orBust campaign.

This year, the Speedway encouraged fans to post pictures of their best Indy moments with the #Indy500orBust hashtag.  They presence in Indianapolis was everywhere: a decal to make your own #Indy500orBust sign contained in a ticket mailer; photo opportunities at the Indianapolis Airport with classic Indy race cars; on a schedule postcard handed out when ticket takers scanned tickets; an entire "social media garage" at the Speedway fostering the message and giving out stamped cardboard signs to facilitate "selfies" of fans around the Speedway, and ultimately the world. Fans could then view and "claim" their photo at indy500orbust.com for a chance to win a VIP experience for the 2014 Indianapolis 500.

According to Indianapolis Motor Speedway Digital Producer Brian Simpson, the inspiration for the campaign came from the stories that come out of the Indy 500:

The Indianapolis 500 is an aspirational event for the fans, participants and various other individuals surrounding the race. We wanted to create a social campaign that really showcased the "journey" to Indy, not necessarily from just a physical standpoint (travel, etc.) but also from a mental standpoint.  Everyone who attends Indy has a story behind why they attend, the first time they attended, or how the tradition started with their family. Even the drivers have some incredible stories regarding their respective 'journeys' to Indianapolis. We focused on coming up with a campaign that allowed everyone to tell their story visually, and we instantly landed on Instagram.

And what about the drivers and the teams?

Overall, the drivers and teams loved it. We had one driver, Josef Newgarden, who really stepped up as the "unofficial spokesman" of the #Indy500orBust campaign. He even took it as far as having the hashtag placed on his custom helmet design for the Indianapolis 500. Instagram posted one of his photos from their account when they highlighted our campaign on the Saturday before the race, which took our reach to a new level.

How did it do? "The campaign exceeded our expectations in every aspect. It really took off when we entered the month of May and truly took on a viral status," Simpson said.

By channeling this world of mouth, IndyCar is hoping to continue the viral spread of the great racing happening at Indy, and channel it into the growth of strong of a national series schedule, which in 2013 features 19 races.

"We've learned a lot from this campaign and believe we've really found some concepts that can be applied again to create additional successful campaigns in the future. This was our first venture into creating a marketing campaign that was based on social activity, and it was wildly successful," Simpson said.

Clearly, social media isn't the only answer to helping to spread awareness, but it is a great way to start.  The hill for IndyCar to climb in race fan consciousness is still steep - but every piece of social media content created around the series helps to climb one more notch, and win back at least one more fan at a time.

This piece originally appeared on tagsmith.org.